THREE WILD PLACES YOU SHOULD CYCLE THROUGH THIS YEAR
This article was originally published by Mr Porter, written by Mr Jim Merrett. You can see it here.
For cyclists looking for their kicks beyond laps of their local park, France, Italy and Spain are the lands of milk and honey. Or, rather, smooth roads, great climbs and bags of cycling heritage, plus, plenty of spectacular food (and coffee) for refueling along the way. But given it’s a sport that seems to thrive on pain – “The race is won by the rider who can suffer the most,” as the legendary Mr Eddy Merckx once put it – it makes sense that today many cyclists are going even further afield, outside their comfort zone. In 2019, the hottest cycling destinations are off the beaten track – in some cases, quite literally.
“People have become more imaginative and we see more and more atypical destinations being requested by our community,” says Mr Darius Alavi-Ellis, founder of Attu, a new travel company catering to the more adventurous cyclist, with scheduled trips, as well as scope for bespoke tours. “A decade ago, you would still see many organised tours happening in the traditional ‘big name’ mountain ranges of Europe, whereas now we are as active in four or five other continents as we are here.”
Attu’s roster includes rides in South America, Africa and Australia, taking in countries you’d struggle to spell, let alone pinpoint on a map (Kyrgyzstan, we’re looking at you). Some feature tarmac seemingly purpose-laid to be ridden on, while others will have you quoting Back To The Future entirely out of context: “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.” Mr Alavi-Ellis says that the rise of gravel and cyclocross riding has changed what cyclists are looking for from a trip: “We are no longer limited to destinations where the roads have to be suitable for our guests. Taking just two examples, Georgia and Patagonia are two phenomenal places to ride a bike, but if you were limited to just the tarmac, you would not see the best stuff the region has to offer.”
If you’re planning a trip somewhere your mates haven’t yet been, and one – all importantly – that will look great on Instagram, here are three places that Mr Alavi-Ellis suggests you add to your cycling bucket list.
“Colombian pros have been kicking asses in Europe for more than 30 years,” Mr Alavi-Ellis says. No wonder: the country itself is seemingly built around the bike. As well as incredible roads, Mr Alavi-Ellis reports that cycling’s hold on the nation – counting itself as Colombia’s second sport, after football, obviously – means that other vehicles have nothing but respect for cyclists (which is more than we can say about riding in London). “I haven’t been anywhere else in the world where motorists, whether they are on a motorbike or in a 50-ton logging truck, give so much space and time to cyclists,” Mr Alavi-Ellis says.
Then there are the mountains. Of particular note, Attu’s Colombian circuit takes in Alto de Letras, said to be the most demanding – and, at 80km, certainly one of the longest – climbs in the world. “Most people find the first 20km and last 20km the hardest, which is tough mentally as you still have a long day ahead of you,” Mr Alavi-Ellis says. “As with most long days out, I’d recommend eating often (every hour) and breaking the day down into chunks. Helpfully there are three towns spread out at roughly 20km intervals on the way up, so I would aim to have a proper stop and refuel at these. The gradient is never as extreme as in the Dolomites or Alps. It’s the climactic conditions and high altitude that make it tough, meaning it takes the pros around four hours to finish and many others more than 10 hours. Regardless of the time, finishing the climb is a meaningful achievement and a really special ride – not one you would ever forget.”
Also, of course, there’s the coffee, which Mr Alavi-Ellis confirms holds “a special place within of the ritual and culture of cycling”. And Colombia produces some of the best of this legal performance enhancer, which is worth sampling, fresh from the source, on your ride.
We could tell you how many points this former Soviet republic would score if proper nouns were allowed in Scrabble, but probably more useful is where exactly this sizeable nation of just six million people is: flanked between Kazakhstan and China, towards the very central point of the Asian landmass. Of more importance still is its position on the Silk Road, the ancient trading routes linking Europe to the East. And, for the original travellers, the undulating stretch of the continent-length passage through the remote mountains of what is now Kyrgyzstan was perhaps the most challenging.
Last year, in a nod to the thousands of merchants who have trodden this path over the millennia, the country hosted the inaugural Silk Road Mountain Race, a ludicrous 1,700km self-supported bike race taking in gravel paths and more than 26,000m of climbing across the Tian Shan mountain range. Only a third of competitors actually completed it. Attu’s trip there later this year follows some of the same course, but swaps competition for camaraderie while, crucially, providing guides, mechanics and vehicle support, as well as food and drink.
“It’s something like a highlight reel of the race, but with some of the suffering toned down,” says Mr Nelson Trees, director of the Silk Road Mountain Race. “The aim is to make the wild Kyrgyz back country a little more accessible, staying in yurt camps where possible and interacting with locals to get a better feel for the life and culture of this little-known destination.”
If not as uncompromising as the actual race, this tour still presents riders with a real test. “It’s not just about the legs,” Mr Trees warns, “it’s a full-body exercise. Gravel bikes will take the terrain in their stride, but you’ll still need to absorb some of the chatter from the rougher road surface. And as this is a big mountain environment, you should be ready to face all kinds of weather conditions.”
Still, worth it for the bragging rights, right?
If you’re planning to ride to the ends of the Earth, you’d struggle to go much further. The sparsely populated cone at the very bottom of South America, Patagonia is a region that straddles Chile and Argentina. “I think for a lot of people, myself included for a while, it sounds like a mythical place that’s just out of reach,” says Attu operations director Mr Joe Frost, the man in the field.
It’s a vast wilderness, with a lot of ground to cover. “This trip contains our longest day on the road, over 200km, and back-to-back 100km-plus days of dusty, rough, beautiful, inspiring gravel,” says Mr Frost.
With the Andes carving through it, Patagonia’s road network centres around lowland valleys. “Compared to big days in Europe, it’s not that much up,” says Mr Frost. “But it gets you in other ways – relentless undulating gravel roads that go on for hundreds of kilometres. None of this 3km cobble sector rubbish; half the days start on gravel and finish on gravel, no breaks.”
If you have the stomach for that, Mr Frost recommends lining it with some of the incredible produce of the region, not to mention the wine. “I challenge anyone to find a bad bottle,” he says.
Also worth checking out, as you no doubt will on the saddle, are the many lakes, glaciers and volcanoes that dot this land. “On one of our rare rest days, we take a plod up a volcano,” says Mr Frost. “So, not a rest day at all.”